Given the architectural milieu of the South, the last thing I expected to find was a Frank Gehry building. But right there on the Biloxi waterfront, just past the first wave of casinos, is this recent museum by Gehry, primarily designed to house the biomorphic pottery of George Ohr, the Mad Potter of Biloxi. It is actually an ensemble of five new buildings and a reconstructed (post-Katrina) historic one playing off a cluster of live oaks in the middle. As has occurred in some other Gehry projects, the breakdown of scale and the need to engage the landscape leads to more interesting work than when it’s just a large object building.
The individual buildings show a range of visual and formal approaches. The visitors’ center / shop / cafe building has a brick shell, with big roofs shooting off, and a rooftop terrace that is sheltered by a similar roof, which seems to refer to a Gulf Coast vernacular approach for which I can’t remember the name. The interior is a big volume with lots of exposed everything. The contrast between the curving brick walls and the linear steel elements which make up the roof framing is kind of fun.
There is a building for African-American art, but at this point half of it is being used for Ohr pottery, as the building intended for Ohr’s work is not yet completed. On the exterior there again is the juxtaposition of differing systems, with brick volumes below and the metal roof above. But strangely the interior is all gypsum-board shapes, which somewhat reflect the exterior forms, but the materiality of the exterior is completely absent. There’s a disconnect here that I don’t understand. Is it budget, is it wishing to create a more neutral space for the exhibition of art?
The cluster of four curving metal pods for Ohr’s pottery sits across the courtyard. The contrast between the trees and the metal is beautiful, and the abstract, unified quality (they are just surface) of the pods sets them off from the other buildings. Looking through the door at one of the unfinished pods was revealing – it resembles an Airstream trailer, with a metal skin over large metal framing, and another skin on the interior, which probably provides the shear resistance. But in the one pod which is completed, the interior is again covered in white gypsum board. Early Gehry buildings got a lot of mileage from revealing and using the necessary building elements; I don’t know why he is now covering all that up.
There is one reconstructed historical building, a house that was built in the 19th century by a local freedman, Pleasant Reed. It was destroyed by Katrina, but has been faithfully rebuilt as an interpretive center, showing the vernacular construction, and tracing the lives of him and his family.
The Biloxi pottery center has studio, exhibit and meeting spaces, and plays different games with some of the same elements as the visitors’ center. The rooftop terrace here has been enclosed as a board room.
The five new buildings are quite different, but they hold together as a group for a few reasons. First, there is a common material vocabulary – brick, white panels, steel framing, curtain walls and metal sheathing. Second, there is a form-language of how these pieces are used – rectilinear, curvilinear, and skewed shapes. Each building is a mix-and-match of elements between these two systems, leading to a lot of richness. There isn’t a rigid assignment of materials or shapes to specific roles within a system of meaning (I couldn’t see that the brick always meant one thing), but rather playfulness in the pairings, as if every possible combination was being explored to get the maximum variety within the limited palette. (I can feel an analytical matrix coming on.)
The central courtyard is the heart of the scheme, with the oaks framing, obscuring and balancing the buildings. These are not simple fabric buildings, fading into the background in deference to the needs of the whole. Each building is a strong, simple statement, and even though they share an architectural approach, without the open space and the large trees, they would be at war with each other, each clamoring for attention.
Reflecting back on the Gehry buildings I’ve seen, my favorites are the ones where they have this relationship to the landscape, or where he creates a campus (such as the Loyola Law School). The buildings are such powerful objects that they often look ill-at-ease on a city street. They often don’t play well with others.
This siting allows them each to exist and be considered on its own terms, while still working together to make a complex, varied, but still lovely outdoor space. We don’t think of Frank Gehry buildings as being very contextual, but this complex responds wonderfully to the site, the climate, and even some vernacular building elements. I got the impression from some locals that they don’t really understand or like this museum, but I think they got one of the best Gehry buildings around.